Meet the New Rebels Taking Back Our Public Schools

For decades the myth of failing public schools justified industrial-scale testing and a privatization agenda. Now radical educators are bursting the bubble test, getting culturally relevant, and restoring justice to the classroom.

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Many of us were blessed with a teacher who touched our lives. My favorite was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Booth, who left her position at my nearly all-white school to teach at a school for African American students. It seems odd to write this now, because even then desegregation was the law of the land. But in the small town in Maryland where I was born, segregation was alive and well and—I later learned—enforced by violence and terror.

Today, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools remain a bastion of separate and unequal, divided by both race and class. Because schools rely heavily on local taxes, poorer districts are forced to make do with decaying school buildings, antiquated technology, and large class sizes.

The reform agenda of high-stakes tests, teacher firings, and privatization has not resulted in better education, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

Young people are taught to tolerate boredom, obey authority, lower their expectations, and prepare for a future of low-wage jobs. Those who act out are subject to zero-tolerance policies that feed the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

But a growing movement is pushing back, led by teachers who refuse to administer standardized tests that they believe are not helping students learn.

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If students are the losers in an underfunded system that teaches to the test, the companies opening private charter schools are the winners. The number of students in charter schools more than tripled from 2000 to 2010. But charter schools overall aren’t getting better results than public ones, even though, according to Reuters, many cherry-pick the students most likely to succeed.

The practice of underfund/test/privatize perpetuates a separate and unequal system, with the most vulnerable unable to get the education they need to prosper.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Wealthy districts and private schools offer small classes and rigorous curricula rich in creativity, hands-on science, the arts, and literature. This issue of YES! suggests that all students deserve that opportunity.

Schools should prepare all students to fulfill their potential; the world they are inheriting badly needs their creativity and leadership.

That means learning the three Rs and also becoming literate in the many cultures that make up the United States. Curtis Acosta’s “rehumanized” ethnic studies program helped cut dropout rates for at-risk Latino students to almost nothing—until it was shut down by politicians.

In an era of climate crises and mass extinctions, students also need to be environmentally literate. Educator David Sobel says the best time to begin developing an appreciation for the natural world might just be in kindergarten.

Many people have painful school memories of bullying and ostracism. But schools can teach empathy, cooperation, and self-awareness. And rather than punishing troubled students who act out, restorative justice practices can demand accountability but also offer understanding and tools for resolving conflict, says Fania Davis.

Our schools can change. The unsung heroes featured in this issue show how our public schools can be places where young people become the leaders and self-actualized citizens of a better world.